Why autistic women have brains built for writing memoir

 

My earliest memory is when I learned to read. I was three. I sat in a tiny rocking chair in my grandma’s house with Dick and Jane. And it just clicked. I didn’t know how I read the words, but I did.

In kindergarten a teacher asked, “Who knows what elamenopee means?” I could already read long books but I didn’t know what I was singing with L-M-N-O-P.

In first grade, I told the teacher I can already read. She gave me the dictionary and told me to read it. I read it. She asked me what it meant. I said I didn’t know. To me it was not obvious that reading and understanding went together. Now I know autistic girls have poor reading comprehension.

The only time I felt like it mattered was fifth grade when I got put in the gifted program. We read The Witch of Blackbird Pond. I spent three weeks trying to understand the first two pages and was relieved to be removed from the program.

My first semester in college my professor announced I got the highest grade in a class of 200 kids where I was the only freshman. I didn’t do any of the reading. At some point I realized there is no correlation between reading the material and understanding the material.

Those famously long books like Anna Karenina and One Hundred Years of Solitude? I threw them away.

I like a book I can read in one day. When I walk into a book store, I shop the spines. I know the authors who write short — because I feel like they write for me. Jamaica Kincaid. Sandra Cisneros. Susan Minot. Susana Kaysen. Who cares that teachers sprinkle these books across eighth-grade reading lists?

I love telling you about books because I love telling you about words. But the price of that is autism — reading words early cost me reading faces later.

Autistic brains are full of imbalances. For example, our brains are extraordinary at retrieving past events that happened to us. But just like our lack of executive function means we have a flat hierarchy for our to do lists, we also have a flat hierarchy for our memories — we have categories rather than chronology.

Now I see why nitpickers say I’m not a reliable narrator. It’s not about reliability it’s about relatability — their memories don’t match my patterns.

Neurotypical people have the type of autobiographical memory that creates a chronological unfolding of events. Autistic people have episodic memory which is nonlinear.

In literature, autobiographical memory is canonized in the narrative arc. We describe that like epic (Odyssey), philosophical discussion (War and Peace), or the Great American Novel (Moby Dick).

Nonlinear writing by men commands serious words like stream-of-consciousness (As I Lay Dying) or just The Longest (Proust). Nonlinear writing by women receives diminutive labels like flash fiction (Lydia Davis) and slice-of-life (Annie Ernaux).

This is why, when Annie Ernaux won the Nobel Prize in Literature, I cried. The spines of her books are thin. Her chapters are short and the sentences slide across the white of the page.

The Nobel committee commended Annie Ernaux’s courageous approach to personal memory. I hear this as a call to arms for autistic women to write our stories.

Because there is no body of work from women describing the autistic experience. We have not known about autism long enough. Annie Ernaux reflects our sensibilities but not our context. She provides a blueprint and the literary legitimacy, but it’s up to us to create a canon of consciously autistic literature for the next generation to look to as they grow from autistic girls into autistic women.

The more memories we have the more compelled we should feel to write them down. And we up to the task. Because just like autistic men dominate math, autistic women dominate memoir.

27 replies
    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I would say that all memoirs are written by autistic women. But that is for another post :)

      A woman being autistic and a woman writing about being autistic are different. Think about men being gay and writing vs men being gay and writing about the gay experience. It’s very difficult to advocate for a live lived authentically out in the open with a literature that reflects us living undercover.

      Research about being gay shows that people are happiest and most successful in life if they are open and honest about being gay — at work, at home, when they parent, etc. There is similar research for women with autism: when we camouflage to fit in with neurotypicals we fail at fooling anyone and we exhaust ourselves trying to be someone we’re not.

      This is one of the reasons it’s so important to have a body of literature to turn to when forming one’s own identity.

      Penelope

      Reply
  1. Sean Crawford
    Sean Crawford says:

    Penelope, five minutes ago in the donut shop the lady ahead of me in line was in town to do a presentation on autism to some teachers. I said we are discovering more and more that adults have autism. She knew. I gave your name so she could find your website. She was excited to hear of it! Too bad she was hurriedly grabbing big class coffee cartons (with a spigot) I wish we had time for me to display this website, as I have your site bookmarked, but it was not to be.

    Sometimes, I just know which strangers I can talk to. (It helped that she had a friendly Christmas sweater)

    So I sure hope she remembers and finds your site.

    Reply
  2. harris497
    harris497 says:

    Interesting post Penny. Representation makes us see that we have a place in this world.
    Perhaps you could teach…
    My2centsworth,
    D

    Reply
  3. Sigh
    Sigh says:

    No memories work chronologically, it’s just not how memory works, and there’s no evidence I’ve seen that autistic people have superior memory. Weren’t you working on some proper research? Site your sources.

    Reply
    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I thought long and hard about links. The links would all be to journal articles and they would be tedious reading. If you like that sort of thing, go to google scholar and search autism memory autobiographical episodic. Then if you’re feeling like you have more spunk search women autobiographical episodic. Limit the search to 2018 and later.

      Penelope

      Reply
      • jean
        jean says:

        When you first told me I was autistic, one of the things that I realized made me different was my extremely detailed memories of things that happened to me. I can think back and see the exact expressions people gave me, what they said exactly, how I felt. I can play these memories like a movie over and over, and as I age, the memory doesn’t change but my understanding of the event does… precisely because of this phenomenon.

        I asked my husband if he could do that… he said no. I thought everybody could.

        Reply
    • Jessica Arnott
      Jessica Arnott says:

      I have autism + I remember that Penelope’s article did not contain the argument that “autistic people have superior memory” = maybe we do have superior memory…

      Reply
  4. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    I read a lot of memoir because I like the genre, and I am struggling to think of the last memoir I read that was written by a man.

    I taught myself to read at age three as well. When I entered Kindergarten, the retirement-age teacher was most displeased that I was actually reading, and discouraged it. This was at the end of the era when Kdg was about socialization, not about education. Oh, and I could write equally well with either hand, and the teacher forced me to use my right hand only.

    I didn’t enjoy reading literature when that started in the 7th grade. One teacher made us read Wuthering Heights and I found it to be the biggest piece of garbage ever. So much subtle stuff happening between the characters, and I could see none of it. Why can’t someone in that book just say what they’re actually thinking?!!?

    Reply
    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Mark! You find such gems for me. Thank you. I love the New Yorker article. And I actually thought of sending out an SOS to someone to help me find the artist’s name for the picture of the books. I took the picture in the Aspen Art Museum store six years ago. When I called the museum to ask about the books, they had no idea what I was talking about. So I really appreciate you knowing what I want in links without even asking me.

      Penelope

      Reply
  5. Melody
    Melody says:

    This is so interesting and relatable. The hyperlexia, face blindness, the propensity for memoir writing . . . And how we remember. Wow.

    Reply
  6. Logan
    Logan says:

    Interesting analysis, although I think perhaps you’re attributing “autism” with “genius”…I think in history, women are in every book, they are the authors, the artists, the ones behind the scenes. Their voices are very distinct and they have left their signature on the world, even if we don’t know their true identities.

    Reply
  7. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    I actually wonder why a neurotypical woman would write a story. Writing stories takes oneself away from core, in person relationships so that we can focus on our internal thoughts and ideas and then forge relationships with a reader. Neurotypical women don’t have special interests like autistic women — neurotypical women’ special interest is friends. And while autistic women will sacrifice time with family for their special interest, neurotypical women do not put special interests before family.

    So neurotypical women are focusing on friends and family and writing stories doesn’t contribute to that. It takes away from that. I don’t see the point of neurotypical women writing stories, and I dont’ see examples of it. Especially as we go back in history — the further back you go in history the more social conventions a woman had to go against to write. Which means the further back you go in history the more a woman who wrote stories would have to make family second to writing.

    I see examples all the time where I put my writing before family. It’s natural to me even though I wish I were more focused and devoted to family. This is why I think women with. normal brains don’t write stories — they have no desire or need to.

    Penelope

    Reply
    • Fatima
      Fatima says:

      Thank you, it’s interesting. The very few women I know who write or create art are not the centers of my social circles, even though some of them might be fashionable, etc.
      But I had attributed that to them being quieter (in the traditional sense of society labeling someone quiet) than the rest. I talk from an Indian perspective.

      Reply
  8. minami
    minami says:

    It is such a relief to find out that I don’t have to write in a linear or chronological way. That’s been the biggest obstacle to me writing longer pieces like you’ve recommended I do. This is really freeing.

    Reply
  9. Leese
    Leese says:

    Sometimes a post finds one just when one needs it and such it is with this one. I have been focusing very narrowly of late on writing an episodic type memoir and at times have felt intensely selfish and navel gazing in doing so. When I mention what I am doing in casual social groups, oft times I think I can hear others figuratively swiping left. (I was asked…”what do you do for fun, play board games? Golf?”
    “No, I am writing a memoir.”

    Polite silence ensues..)

    Thank you for helping me not feel as bad about not having friends but rather seeking to “forge relationships with the reader”. I LOVE THAT! You hit the nail on the head.

    Reply

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